Two approaches to teaching disc golf

By Valarie Jenkins and Josh Woods ~

Paul McBeth and Nate Sexton give an instructional clinic at the McBeast Challenge in Ocala, Florida (March 21, 2017). Photo by Brian Wells.

“Back in the weeds … great!”

Learning how to play disc golf can be frustrating. Searching for your disc in thorny underbrush while your friend taps in for birdie can test the patience of any disc golfer.

But then it happens: A breakthrough. The disc leaves your hand, glides along an intended path and lands near the basket. The sun peaks from the clouds. Birds chirp happily in the trees. You can breathe again. Okay, maybe you’ll play another round.

Moments of success keep disc golfers coming back for more. But where do they come from? How do disc golfers learn to play better?

There’s certainly no lack of educational materials for aspiring players. For anyone with Internet access, advice on every aspect of the game is only a click away.

Yet, there’s very little discussion of how people learn to play, and the best ways to provide instruction. The Google-machine just doesn’t offer much on “Theories of Disc Golf Pedagogy.”

Theories of teaching are important. And whether they know it or not, disc-golf instructors use them all the time. The most popular teaching theory in disc golf probably goes something like this: “Hey, I’m pretty good at disc golf. Other people are less good at it. If I stand in front of them, recite tips and demonstrate proper form, they will sponge up my wisdom and get better.”

This may sound like snark, but it’s not. The assumption that experts should stand before non-experts, offer their knowledge, and model best practices lies at the heart of traditional education. As the legendary Greek philosopher Plato put it, “If you want to train a horse, hire a horse trainer.”

The Teacher-Centered Approach

Whether it’s a tip offered during a casual round or a full-scale clinic, most disc golf teaching probably leans toward the teacher-centered approach, as described in Figure 1. Instructors assume the role of expert. That’s why top pros run clinics, not beginners. Their reputations as talented players motivate students to listen and accept their advice.

From this perspective, the goals of teaching disc golf are to identify the most valuable information, organize it, and carefully convey it to an audience. The teacher-centered approach is probably familiar to … well, everyone. It’s the dominant paradigm, the go-to formula, the jam and jelly of teaching in the United States.

And yet, as most of us know, it doesn’t always work. Anyone who has sat through a long lecture in school knows that teacher-centered classrooms are not always the liveliest of learning environments.

“Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?”

The Student-Centered Approach

In recent years, some research has shown that a strict, teacher-centered approach is less effective than an interactive, student-centered approach.[1] The key assumption of the latter perspective is that teachers, no matter how charismatic, interesting or talented, cannot simply download their knowledge to learners like downloading a favorite song from the internet. Every time a student learns something, they actively construct their own knowledge, and blend it with what they already know.

To ensure learning, then, student-centered teachers encourage students to engage in the subject matter, work with new ideas, talk about their past experiences, and become aware of how their understanding is changing as the lesson progresses. Through dialogue and group interaction, the teacher assesses the students’ interests, and attempts to trigger their innate curiosity, which decreases the need for authority or reputation to motivate student engagement.

From this perspective, you don’t need to be a great disc golfer to be a great teacher. You need to know the basics of disc golf and be a great facilitator and organizer of active learning environments.

Figure 1: Teacher-Centered Versus Student-Centered Disc Golf Instruction

 Teacher-Centered Student-Centered
Teachers give information to students; students are passive recipients of knowledge. Teachers lead discussion with students, helping them construct their own knowledge.
A fixed curriculum on proper form is valued. Pursuit of student questions and interests is valued.
Learning is based on expert advice and demonstrations. Learning is interactive and builds on what students already know.
Teacher’s role is rooted in a reputation as a skilled player. Teacher’s role is rooted in flexibility and an eagerness to dialogue.
Students work primarily alone, listening to advice and working on their own. Students work primarily in groups, interacting with the teacher and other students.

Real-World Applications

So, what do these two approaches look like under the clear blue sky of disc golf land? How would someone give teacher-centered versus student-centered advice in the field?

In clinics, much of the difference boils down to the amount of time spent on lecturing versus discussion and practice. Teacher-centered instructors offer as much information as they can in a short amount of time, and sometimes have a brief practice session at the end for students to test their advice. They may also ask for questions from the audience with the goal of clarifying information, but are not focused on generating discussion.

To the student-centered instructor, it’s important for students to feel the disc, try the grip, and move along with the lesson. That’s when the information begins to click. Instead of asking for questions, the teacher asks students questions and encourages back-and-forth conversations.

Dave Feldberg instructs Tyler Jessop (right) and Mitchell Rand (left) at the Birds Nest disc golf course in Arvada, Colorado (September 30, 2017). Photo by Jason Goetz.

The Best Approach

So, which approach is best? There are strong arguments on both sides, but ultimately the “best approach” usually depends on the situation. From the amount and type of space available to the number of students in the session to the length of the lesson, every teaching situation is different and teachers should adjust their approach to the circumstances.

For instance, the student-centered approach is probably best for teaching kids. Interacting, moving and throwing help younger learners focus on the task at hand. With new and younger students, teachers might also ask the audience about their experiences with other sports, and then relate the movements of those sports to playing disc golf.

There are several disc golf throwing motions that can be related to movements in baseball, basketball, golf, tennis and volleyball. As suggested by the student-centered approach, using the knowledge that students already have from other sports can make a disc golf lesson click.

On the other hand, the teacher-centered approach may be more useful to those who already know how to throw, but are looking for detailed answers to questions on form or shot selection. In these situations, a group discussion may be perceived as less valuable than direct advice from a professional.

Although there may not be one best way to teach disc golf, being aware of the two approaches can help everyone, from experienced instructors to everyday disc golfers, give coherent and effective advice.


Valarie Jenkins

Four-time World Champion Valarie Jenkins has been teaching disc golf for more than a decade. Her teaching style leans toward the student-centered approach.



Josh Woods

Josh Woods, editor at Parked, has been teaching college courses in sociology for more than a decade. His teaching style also leans toward the student-centered approach.




Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.

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[1] Maheshwari, G., and Thomas, S. (2017). An analysis of the effectiveness of the constructivist approach in teaching business statistics. Informing Science, 20, 83-97; Bay, E., Bagceci, B., & Cetin, B. (2012). The effects of social constructivist approach on the learners’ problem solving and metacognitive levels. Journal of Social Sciences, 8(3), 343; Lord, Thomas R. (1999). A Comparison Between Traditional and Constructivist Teaching in Environmental Science, The Journal of Environmental Education, 30:3, 22-27.

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